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Aimee Custis can’t count the number of times that she’s been almost struck by a vehicle. But the number of times that she has definitely been struck by a vehicle? Three.
Custis, a cycling advocate who now works at a local think tank, was bicycling on two of those occasions and walking during the third. Most recently, on May 25, after watching the Nationals beat the Miami Marlins 5-0, Custis was nearly hit again as she cycled home from Navy Yard. While passing near McPherson Square, a motorist driving a black minivan with Lyft’s signature pink light-up sign in its windshield attempted a right turn in her direction. She says that she was wearing bright red clothing for the game, and crossing the intersection when she had the right-of-way.
Fortunately for Custis, both she and the driver hit their brakes before a collision could occur. She says that she came off her seat, her pelvis slamming into her handlebars and leaving “quite a colorful” bruise along her lower abdomen. The driver honked at Custis, who was doubled over in pain, and then drove away.
A few days after the collision, she was still limping. As she’s been in crashes before, she felt that medically she was fine and didn’t require hospitalization. She didn’t file a police report or seek medical attention.
“Even I, who have been working in bicycle advocacy for almost a decade, in the moment, chose not to seek [police or] medical follow-up, because it can be that jarring that you don’t think to, even when you’ve been trained better,” says Custis.
In fact, Custis says that this wasn’t the first time that she had been involved in a collision and didn’t follow the guidelines that she hopes others would. Even for the most ardent bicycling devotees, it’s challenging to recall what to do during a road emergency.
If you’re going to ride in D.C., the evidence—namely that pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities make up about one-fifth of all traffic fatalities in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while the number of commuting bicyclists in D.C. has doubled in the past decade—suggests that you ought to have an emergency plan in place.
Here are basic tips to try to come out of a bad bicycling situation with the best potential outcome. Pedestrians should also keep most of these suggestions in mind.
First: Call 911 and stay put
If you’re struck by a vehicle, it may seem obvious to call 911. However, it isn’t uncommon for injured people to leave the scene without doing so, according to Timmy Finch, a bicycle attorney and a member of the Bike Law network, a group of lawyers across the country who advocate for cyclists.
Finch handles a few dozen bicyclist-involved collisions every year, and he says that “a surprising number” of his bicycling clients, friends, and acquaintances skip this step.
There isn’t just one reason, in Finch’s opinion. Sometimes, he says, a bicyclist needs to make an appointment, or underestimates the severity of the situation. In other circumstances, the adrenaline of the movement may push a bicyclist past any pain that they are experiencing.
“Sometimes people think, ‘What’s the point, this isn’t a big deal, I’m not injured, there’s no damage to the car,’ or they think, ‘I might get blamed, I’m not going to call,’” says Finch.
But by skipping this crucial step, a bicyclist risks losing the opportunity to file a timely police report and be examined by a medical professional who can evaluate any injuries.
Don’t assume the best in people
Considering that most Americans don’t have $1,000 in savings, it’s no surprise that few are eager to be on the hook for the medical bills or the cost of replacing damaged cycling equipment. That’s more than enough reason to make sure that you have the driver’s accurate contact information and insurance information.
“[Bicyclists] take on good faith, like many of us do, that the person who hit them who says, ‘Oh, I’ll pay for the damages to your bicycle,’ [bicyclists] take it on good faith that that will happen,” says Jonathan Stafford, a Washington Area Bicyclist Association Vision Zero campaign coordinator. “It’s not until they get dismissed that they then start to seek other options.”
Take photos of the person’s license, business card, and insurance paperwork at the scene, or have a witness or responding officer take the photos for you if you’re too shaky to take a steady shot. Try to confirm the contact information right there: Text or call the provided number to confirm that it’s accurate.
Don’t make any remarks about your condition until a professional has assessed you and says whether you are uninjured or need follow-up tests. Stick with short, factual replies. In a tense moment, you don’t want to make assumptions or opine in a manner that could be used to redraw the lines of responsibility.
Seek out witnesses and other corroborating evidence
Was the collision on a busy street, with half a dozen rubberneckers still checking out the scene? Even if the incident was in a relatively quiet area, seek out those who saw the most and hail them over. Get their contact information as well, but ask them to stay on the scene until a responding officer has arrived and can take their statement.
While it’s equally important that the struck cyclist stays at the scene to provide their perspective on the collision, depending on the severity of one’s injuries, that might not be realistic. If you need immediate medical attention, try to confirm that some witnesses will provide a statement to responding officers.
“The police can only take one version of that story if there’s only one person there,” says Finch, explaining how it is not uncommon for a hospitalized or otherwise medically evaluated victim to be served a citation by an officer who has not received both sides of the story.
Don’t assume that you won’t be able to collect for damages
Why should you bother going through the trouble? It may be easier to just want to get bandaged, get a new bike, and move on. But now that the District has formalized a comparative negligence standard for transportation crashes, Finch says, bicyclists now are more likely to receive compensation for related damages.
In the past, it wasn’t so straightforward. Under the former contributory negligence standard, any potential compensation for a victim could be voided even if they were found to be just 1 percent negligent in a given situation. That could come down to the fact that they were wearing dark clothes or were looking in a different direction, despite having the right-of-way or the condition of the motorist.
Now, according to the relevant statute, a bicyclist’s negligence is unable to prevent that individual from pursuing compensation unless the bicyclist was the “proximate cause” of their own injury and that unless that negligence is “greater than the aggregated total amount of negligence of all of the defendants that proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury.”
Essentially, so long as you were not the main cause of your own injuries, you are now able to seek compensation. However, you should always consult an attorney regarding the specific details of your case and the most relevant case law.
Keep a card on hand to remind you of all of this and update your information
Being struck by a vehicle could fairly be considered one of the most high-stress situations that could happen to most of us, bicyclist or otherwise. Before getting on the road, cyclists should have something to remind themselves of all of the information they will need. WABA currently has a downloadable, printable crash form for bicyclists to tuck into their wallets, which reminds bicyclists of the steps to take after a crash.
Be sure to keep your information accurate across services and platforms. Confirm that your emergency contact information in your phone or in your wallet is current (and won’t send responders into a conversation with your ex-romantic partner from three years ago). Make sure it’s actually someone who could assist you or first responders—preferably someone local, reliable, and level-headed.